Reader Review by Mike Jones
Two separate women, alone, on two different islands in the Santa Barbara Channel - one there by shipwreck, the other some sixty years later by her own design - are the bookend images that T.C. Boyle conjures for us in his latest novel, When the Killing's Done.
The former is biologist Alma Boyd Takesue's grandmother, Beverly, who, in 1946 after an act of God (or nature) swamps her husbands yacht, floats via an ice cooler until washing ashore on the inhospitable island of Anacapa. Once there she discovers a cabin, uninhabited but for the extended family of rats who seem unfazed by her sudden presence. Although, as Alma later relates, not endemic to Anacapa, the rats had pervaded and thrived there for many years, likely arriving by hitching a ride on some splintered timber from one of the channel's myriad shipwrecks. These are the very same brood of rodents, descendants of whom Alma, through the auspices of the National Park Service, will, for the benefit of the islands indigenous birds, work to eradicate.
Alma's nemesis turns out to be the founder of the grassroots organization FPA (For the Protection of Animals), Dave LaJoy, a fanatical vegan coiffed in dreadlocks. Dave, in league with his folk singer girlfriend, Anise and sidekick Wilson Gutierrez, will stop at nothing, risking arrest, incarceration, and even death, to confound Alma's preservation efforts. Boyle lends his considerably tragic sense of wit to this latest tale, an attribute of his writing which is usually more apparent in his short fiction and hasn't been plied successfully in his novels since 2003's Drop City.
With When the Killings Done, Boyle dives into rocky and roiling waters, exploring the sometimes gaping rifts within ostensibly similar belief systems; in this case the bio-ethics community and more specifically, the ethical treatment of animals. He unveils the volatile and contentious relationship between the wildlife conservancy crowd and the PETA crowd. Even as Alma struggles to prevent the extinction of certain indigenous species by removing the invasive predatory species, LaJoy and his cohorts plot to save the very same invasive species because after all they're animals too, they don't deserve to be disposed of like so much bad tofu. Boyle asks: Is it ethically acceptable to kill wild boars in order to protect other species on Santa Cruz island? And is it worth it to risk human lives to save these very same feral pigs? Such questions, for me, recall the ubiquitous abortion debate or the stem cell issue; are we letting our political and religious beliefs run rampant over common sense and our own species preservation?
Alma mulls this over after discovering that she is pregnant by her boyfriend and colleague, the Dickensian dubbed Tim Sickafoose. She is ever thinking in Darwinian terms:
The only discernible purpose of life is to create more life—any biologist knows that. She’s thirty-seven years old. The clock is ticking. She’s a unique individual with a unique genetic blueprint, representative of a superior line, in fact—in cold fact, without prejudice—and so’s Tim, with his high I.Q. and mellow personality and his long beautifully articulated limbs, and they have an obligation to pass their genes on if there’s any hope of improving the species.
She takes the long view, which I suspect the author favors as well. Though, while later tagging along with professional game hunters on Santa Cruz she has a near revelatory experience over the fresh corpse of a feral pig:
Rain stirs the dense tangle of fur, drops silently into the fixed and unseeing eyes, the delicacy of the lashes there, the canthic folds, the deep rich chocolate brown of the irises. She bends from the waist to see more clearly, ignoring the riveting of the rain. The hooves fascinate her. She’s never seen a hoof up close before—it’s so neatly adapted to its task, a built-in shoe shining and dark with the wet, as impervious as if it were molded of plastic. And the ears, the way the ears stand straight up, like a German shepherd’s, to collect and concentrate the sounds that only come to us peripherally. The heavy shoulders, the neat arc of the haunches, the switch of the tail. This wild thing, this perfect creature.
A glimmer of divine understanding, a discovery shoveling a stabilizing heft to her ethos, this bit of writing humanizes Alma, making the reading more worthwhile. Meanwhile her arch enemy, LaJoy is destined to have a sort of transcendental experience himself. If there is only one detractor here it is that the character of LaJoy is not more fleshed out. The reader is treated to plenty of back-story with regard to Alma and Anise, as Boyle reveals their formative roots, but LaJoy is a big question mark. Where are the seeds of motivation planted in the most deeply motivated figure of the novel?
Still this is one of Boyle's best social forays, providing his readers with an engaging, quirky story, pulling together characters we can care about, with no clear lines drawn. He lets the reader engage with the conflict and form their own conclusions. It's been said of Boyle's work that it is bereft of heroes (in fact he acknowledged this commentary by entitling one of his short story collections, Without a Hero) and with When the Killing's Done, he adheres to that tenet; no heroes evident here, just veritable people.